Starting in 2016, autonomous vehicles (AVs) began capturing the global imagination: Elon Musk announced that all new Teslas would eventually have the hardware needed to drive on their own, and Waymo launched its Early Rider programme in Chandler, Arizona shortly thereafter. Envisioning improved accessibility and lower costs, public transit agencies raced to explore how public transit systems might offer AVs the quickest path to full autonomy.
Yet despite the hype, these public pilots showed that the technology was still far away from the envisioned future due to several factors: technical limitations in 5G and sensor technologies, significant legal gaps, and safety hazards—which were made clear with the 2018 fatality of Elizabeth Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona.
With public opinion uncertain, and policy and technology lagging, 2019 indicated a shift in focus away from passenger transport towards logistics applications. Then came 2020; when it comes to transportation, COVID-19 has both hindered development and revealed new opportunities.
Is rural the new black for AVs in public transit?
Among other things, travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have forced many to work from home, a shift in business operations that some companies are prepared to continue for the foreseeable future. This has triggered a decrease in the value of commercial real estate and a rise in suburban residential prices, as well as a debate on whether people will be willing to live further away from job markets in the future. In other words, will rural living become more desirable post-COVID-19?
In parallel, the public sector is starting to look at piloting new mobility technologies outside the metropolitan regions. The motivation here is not for the viral, rapid adoption of users, but rather the potential savings; compared to their urban counterparts, sparsely populated areas face higher costs in providing public transit. Consequently, the provision of public transport is often limited, which implies that new mobility services could have a substantial impact on quality of life for the residents in these towns that do not have access to private cars. Additionally, some of the challenges in large cities, such as complex traffic or buildings that interfere with sensors, are less of an issue in smaller towns.
To explore opportunities for shared AVs in rural contexts, RISE, a Swedish research institute, initiated the “Autonomous Countryside” project in 2020, with the goal of helping Swedish municipalities to understand if shared AVs can replace regular buses at some of their public transit routes with low ridership. The level of interest has been promising, but the road ahead is not without obstacles; rural use requires higher speeds over longer distances, compared to what current solutions offer. There is also less digital and physical infrastructure supporting navigation on the countryside, and the willingness to share rides is particularly low amongst habitual car drivers. Yet, enhanced AV concepts are on the way and the pandemic might revive the need for public transit in rural communities—an environment for shared AVs that could offer more gain for less risk.
Is autonomous technology headed for logistics next?
The willingness to share journeys was a complex subject even before COVID-19. In 2019, as part of the “Societal Readiness Index for Shared Autonomy” project, RISE and Keolis hosted focus groups on the topic in Australia. These showed a wide-ranging acceptance for contemporary on-demand services like UberPool or Keoride.
But even the most devout supporters of these services did not respond well to the idea of shared AVs. Why? Much like electric cars first sparked range anxiety in unfamiliar consumers, shared AVs seem to engender sharing anxiety in potential users. As one interviewee explained: “It is not so much the technology, I’m quite comfortable with that… [But] there is a certain level of trust placed in the bus driver, an expectation they would be there to help.” Thus, in contrast to what previous research has indicated, his greatest fear was not about technological capabilities, but in sharing rides with strangers without the reassurance and authority of a driver figure.
COVID-19 takes sharing anxiety to even greater heights. As a result, 2021 will likely be a difficult year for shared AV trials except perhaps in communities where the infection is tightly controlled, like New Zealand or China. But as people have been less inclined to travel, the pandemic has caused a spike in the demand for home deliveries. According to a recent consumer survey by market research firm Euromonitor International, about 50% of consumers surveyed believe they will permanently change their shopping habits towards e-commerce, and a quarter plan to visit stores less frequently.
With existing hurdles facing AVs that carry human passengers, and the dire need for safe transportation of goods during the pandemic, logistics has become a stronger financial case for exploring AVs. COVID-19 has normalised home grocery deliveries, and autonomous trucking companies like TuSimple and Einride are developing means to keep up with consumer demand. Einride in particular is developing with RISE the safety cases of running at higher speeds in mixed traffic, relying only on remote safety surveillance in Gothenburg, Sweden. Interestingly, the vehicle even broke speed records at the renowned Top Gear test track.
Could rural, passenger and logistics applications be combined?
Even though COVID-19 may have slowed people down and sped up the need for goods deliveries, there will always be need for passenger transport. RISE, together with T-Engineering, Keolis, Berge, and Freelway, is working on “Voltron”, a proof-of-concept shuttle that can carry both passengers and self-driving delivery robots. In theory, such a shuttle could reduce fleet operation costs for logistics companies by increasing the range of first- and last-mile robots, while vehicles operating for late-night service could extend public transit offerings.
Although much work needs to be done to understand where, when and how shared AVs can contribute to sustainable transport systems, the work being carried out by RISE and partners indicates that rural and logistics use cases might be worthy of exploration. Perhaps the silver lining to 2020 will be revealed through the development of autonomous, integrated logistics-and-passenger solutions for rural transport.
Sigma Dolins and Goran Smith are Senior Researchers at the RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, where Birger Lofgren is a Director